Nationals

Packers (2-3) looking for answers after Colts loss

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Packers (2-3) looking for answers after Colts loss

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) The Green Bay Packers were looking for answers all over in the wake of a dispiriting 30-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Their once powerful offense looks nothing like it did in 2011. Their defense is starting to look entirely too much like last year's group. And their otherwise solid special teams is asking why its previously reliable, strong-legged kicker Mason Crosby missed a pair of 50-yard field goals - including a potential tying 51-yarder with 3 seconds left in the game - after being virtually automatic before Sunday.

It all adds up to a 2-3 record, putting the Packers below .500 at this point in the season for the third time in coach Mike McCarthy's seven-year tenure. When it happened in McCarthy's first season of 2006, the team needed a four-game winning streak to end the year at 8-8. When it happened in 2008 in Aaron Rodgers' first season as the team's starting quarterback, the Packers were 5-5 before a five-game losing streak led to a 6-10 finish.

On top of it all, the Packers' next game is against the Houston Texans, who took a perfect 4-0 record into their Monday night game at the New York Jets. The Packers play at Houston next Sunday night, the second of three consecutive games away from Lambeau Field.

``We're a focused football team; we're just not playing to the level that we want to play at right now,'' said McCarthy, whose team reeled off 19 consecutive victories - six straight en route to the Super Bowl XLV title and 13 in a row to open last season - but has now lost 5 of its last nine dating back to last season. ``That's what we have to stay focused on. We have to stay focused on our habits, our discipline, our preparation, the process leading up to Sunday night.''

Compounding problems: Injuries to Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings, who missed Sunday's loss with a lingering groin injury; workhorse running back Cedric Benson, who left Sunday's game with a sprained foot; tight end Jermichael Finley, who injured his shoulder against the Colts; and defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who sprained his ankle in Indianapolis.

McCarthy ruled Benson out for this week's game while saying that Raji and Finley ``have a chance'' to play against the Texans.

But injuries are only part of the problem. On offense, Rodgers isn't playing up to the 45-touchdown, six-interception, 122.5-passer rating standard he set last season when he was MVP.

He has completed 130 of 189 passes (68.8 percent) for 1,307 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions (a 2.1 percent interception rate) with 21 sacks for a passer rating of 97.0.

Last season, the Packers scored 560 points, the second-most in NFL history and an average of 35 points per game. Through five games, the Packers have scored only 112 points this season, an average of 22.5 per game - with two of their touchdowns coming on special-teams plays.

``It's never the same from year to year,'' McCarthy said. ``We didn't have rhythm coming out of training camp, we haven't established it consistently through five games. That's where we are.''

Asked about the team's offensive struggles in Sunday's loss, Rodgers replied, ``"We just didn't make any plays. (The Colts) got a little more pressure in the second half. We turned the ball over and got them into a two-score game and then they kind of got back mentally into the game. And then we couldn't put any points on the board to put them away.''

On defense, the unit that gave up the most yards in the NFL last season and set an NFL record for most passing yards allowed continues to give up huge swaths of yardage. One week after giving up 474 yards to the New Orleans Saints, the defense gave up 464 yards to rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts on Sunday.

The difference on defense is that the NFL's most proficient turnover-producing team is no longer taking the ball away. Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward's interception on a Luck pass intended for Reggie Wayne was just the fifth takeaway on the season for the Packers, who entered the weekend with the most takeaways (114) of any team in the league since defensive coordinator Dom Capers took over in 2009.

Last season, the Packers led the NFL with 31 interceptions and tied for the league lead with 38 total takeaways; this year, there have been entirely too many turnovers that didn't happen because of officials' calls, dropped interceptions or penalties that nullified takeaways.

``It's a big difference because as we all know turnovers have such a deciding factor on the games,'' Capers said Monday. ``When you're getting them, you're stealing two or three opportunities and you're talking about a game where there were 15 possessions (by the Colts offense). If you can get three or four takeaways and you get that down to 12 or 11 possessions, it makes a big difference.''

Last season, Crosby was an impressive 24 of 28 and made the second game-winning kick of his NFL career on Dec. 4, connecting from 31 yards out as time expired to give the Packers a 38-35 victory over the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants. His first-game winner had been a 42-yarder against Philadelphia in his NFL debut on Sept. 9, 2007.

In between those two kicks, Crosby had missed three potential winning kicks: A 52-yarder with 26 seconds left at Minnesota on Nov. 9, 2008; a blocked 38-yarder with 25 seconds left at Chicago on Dec. 22, 2008; and a 53-yarder with 7 seconds left in regulation in a tie game at Washington on Oct. 10, 2010.

Then came Sunday, when with 8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Crosby hooked a 51-yard attempt that would have forced overtime.

``I would say this: I would expect him to step up and make that kick,'' special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. ``He needs to help our team in that situation, (given) where that game was at, at that time. Obviously to go to overtime, he needs to make that kick.''

But despite all their issues, McCarthy described his team as ``confident, disappointed'' while acknowledging the ``contradiction there.''

``We've got to win the next one. We've put ourselves in a hole,'' veteran safety/cornerback Charles Woodson said. ``The only thing you can hang your hat on is that it's still early in the season and you've got a long way to go.''

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Catching up on the Orioles before they come to D.C.

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USA Today Sports Images

Catching up on the Orioles before they come to D.C.

It's not a rivalry, but it's not not a rivalry, either.

For the Nationals, playing the Orioles isn't the same thing as playing the Braves or the Phillies, but it's also not the same thing as playing the Tigers or the Rangers. That is to say, it means something.

For many Nats fans, however, the Capitals' glorious run to the Stanley Cup has drawn attention away from baseball, both in D.C. and around the league.

With the Orioles coming to town to finish off their season series (the Nats swept three games in Baltimore back in May when they had forgotten how to lose on the road), casual fans might be wondering how the DMV's other team is doing in 2018.

Well, if the road sweep didn't give it away, the Orioles have been really bad this season. Like, really, really bad. Like, might-be-picking-first-in-the-2019-draft bad.

So, how did the team that won the most games in the American League from 2012 to 2016 end up as the worst team in baseball in 2018?

There are a few factors we can point to, including some serious regression, bad injury luck, a lack of fundamentals, and a tough schedule. On a macro level, however, there's a clear reason for their struggles. The Orioles, who built their 2010s run behind power hitting and a great bullpen, haven't hit for power and haven't had a good bullpen.

The bullpen woes can partially be traced to injury, as Zach Britton has missed most of the year so far after undergoing surgery on his Achilles during the offseason. 

Britton was unbelievable in 2016, putting together one of the greatest relief seasons in recent memory, but he hasn't been quite right since. He struggled with minor injuries in 2017, which hurt his trade value during discussions at last year's trade deadline, and then he suffered his major injury over the winter.

When a team relies on its bullpen as heavily as the Orioles have in the last half-decade, missing any contributor hurts. Missing the best pitcher on the team hurts a lot, and missing one of the best relievers in the world hurts the most. Everyone else has had to move up a rung on the ladder, and it hasn't gone well.

Brad Brach made the All-Star Game in 2016, but since stepping into the closer's role this year he's struggled. A 3.58 ERA is unsightly for a reliever, and his 1.70 WHIP is among the worst of any closer. 16 walks in 27.2 innings have been a major culprit.

Mychal Givens, once considered an untouchable trade asset, is sporting a career-worst ERA of 4.04, and his and Brach's struggles, combined with Britton's absence, have given the O's a 4.17 ERA among all relievers, 22nd in baseball, and a .263 batting average against, which is next-to-last. They have no power pitchers to speak of, as they're striking out just 8.18 batter per 9 innings, 4th-worst in baseball.

The power has gone out at the plate as well. The Orioles have hit 77 home runs this season, which is good for 17th in baseball. That may not sound too bad, as it's right around the middle of the pack, but that total is buoyed by Manny Machado's MVP-level season. The rest of the team has hit a combined 59 home runs, an abysmal number. 

Until being benched recently, Chris Davis was on pace to record literally the worst single-season Wins Above Replacement total in Major League Baseball history. On his own, Davis is undoing any good done by Machado, and he's getting paid a boatload of money to do so. 

It's especially bad when considering how reliant the team is on long balls. Their team batting average is .228, which is barely better than Bryce Harper's .217 average everyone is freaking out about, and their team on-base percentage is a stunning .294, good for dead last in baseball.

Basically, this team never has baserunners, which means they need home runs to score (41.9% of their runs are scored via homers, which is top-10 in baseball). Considering how few home runs they've hit, it's no surprise they've scored the fewest runs in all of baseball.

So, when you see the Orioles' record is an astonishing 20-50 (for reference, that's seven games worse than the woeful Marlins) and they sit 27.5 games back of first place in the AL East, now you know why. The power is out in Baltimore, and it looks like it won't be coming back for quite some time.

Next time the Nats lose five of six games, fans won't have to look too far up I-95 to remember it could be a whol lot worse.
 

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Soto's 2-run HR lifts Nats past Yanks 5-3 in resumed Game 1

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USA Today Sports

Soto's 2-run HR lifts Nats past Yanks 5-3 in resumed Game 1

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Juan Soto's latest feat: homering in a game played before he made his major league debut.

Huh?

The 19-year-old Soto delivered a tiebreaking, pinch-hit, two-run shot in the sixth inning of a game that began and was suspended because of rain last month, five days before he was called up from the minors for the first time, to lift the Washington Nationals to a 5-3 victory over the New York Yankees in the opener of an unusual doubleheader Monday.

Game 1 resumed with the score 3-all and the Nationals about to bat in the bottom of the sixth. After Bryce Harper -- who had a full beard back on May 15, when the game began, but was clean-shaven this time -- struck out, and Anthony Rendon singled, Soto drove a 97 mph fastball from Chad Green (4-1) to the back of the second deck in right field.

"I thought he had a good chance to hit the ball hard," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "That was hard."

It was Soto's sixth homer since he was brought up from Double-A Harrisburg on May 20 -- and second against the Yankees. Soto stood and admired this one before beginning his trot around the bases.

"A pitch right in his hot zone. Soto got us again," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "Obviously a really good looking player. Two pretty big shots he's hit against us."

Soto also was involved in a double play while playing left in the seventh. Didi Gregorius lined to Soto, and he lobbed the ball to shortstop Trea Turner, who sprinted to second base to double off Gary Sanchez.

Soto's stats -- and all others from Game 1 -- will count as being part of the originally scheduled game on May 15, but Soto's official debut will still be considered on the actual date it happened, according to the Nationals, citing the Elias Sports Bureau.

"I wish he was climbing the ladder more routinely. He should be in about Double-A now," Boone said. "What can you say? Nineteen and obviously doing really well."

Wander Suero (1-0) got the win for 1 1-3 scoreless innings -- one inning on May 15, and one out on Monday.

Sean Doolittle struck out Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton and got Gary Sanchez to fly out to center in the ninth for his 18th save.

Game 2, which was completely rained out May 16, was to begin a half-hour after Game 1 finished, with Washington's Erick Fedde facing New York's Sonny Gray.

The Nationals had lost five of six games entering the day.

In the month-plus since the games were supposed to be played, both teams' rosters changed, of course. Aside from Soto's arrival, two position players who started the game for Washington, Howie Kendrick (out for the season with an injury) and Andrew Stevenson (demoted to the minors) are no longer around. For the Yankees, their original starter at first base, Tyler Austin, is in the minors.

Martinez said the closest thing he could compare this situation to was Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, when the Tampa Bay Rays -- he was Joe Maddon's bench coach then -- wound up losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in a contest that began on a Monday, was halted in the sixth inning because of rain, and concluded on a Wednesday.

"It's weird, man," Martinez said.

STREAK ENDS

Another oddity: The loss means the Yankees' streak of winning eight consecutive series now gets retroactively shortened to seven series, because it's as if Game 1 took place entirely on May 15.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Yankees: OF Brett Gardner was not listed in the lineup for Game 2 because an MRI exam showed swelling in his right knee, although Boone said he didn't expect Gardner to go on the DL. ... With Gardner's status uncertain, the Yankees recalled OF Clint Frazier from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre and optioned INF Ronald Torreyes to that minor league affiliate.

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson, on the DL for two weeks with a strained right hamstring, took fielding practice before the start of play Monday and said he "felt fine." Hellickson has taken two bullpen sessions and "felt 100 percent," so expects to be able to return soon. ... 1B Matt Adams was "still a little sore" after getting hit by a pitch on a finger Friday.

UP NEXT

The Nationals open a three-game series at home against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday, and Martinez has not yet announced who his starter will be. The Yankees return to New York for a three-game set against Seattle, with RHP Domingo German (1-4, 5.23 ERA) pitching on Tuesday against Mariners LHP Marco Gonzalez (7-3, 3.42).